Posts Tagged ‘Coaching’

Professional sports organizations often possess the resources to hire an entire staff dedicated to assembling a competitive team. These groups can include Scouts – to identify talent, Recruiters – to persuade those individuals to be a part of their team, Managers – to optimize the arrangement of the various elements, and Coaches – to develop & inspire the players. On the other end of the spectrum, few amateur sports organizations have this luxury when putting their teams together. This generally means that the person designated as “Coach” is often expected to wear many hats, even if they are not particularly adept in each area of the process.


As one of four siblings, who grew up playing various sports, and as the father of four kids, who continue to play on multiple teams, I have noticed that there seems to be a lot more Scouts, Recruiters and Managers out there, than there are genuine “Coaches”. It appears as though most organizations are more interested in identifying the talent, corralling it onto their team and assembling a winner, than on teaching, developing or inspiring their players. In fact, just like pro sports, many of the most successful teams no longer bother with developing talent, they simply go out and accumulate players from other organizations. This is truly a shame, as the vast majority of those participating in amateur sports will never get beyond that level, and a great “Coach” can teach them things that will ultimately transcend the game and be of more value than any trophy.


Given the fact that many within the amateur ranks are unable to recruit their players, I believe that a coach’s value should ultimately be based on what they’ve done with what they’ve been given, as opposed to strictly looking at their win-lose percentage. Within my own experience, I was impacted a lot more by great coaches/teachers than by undefeated seasons.

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Yesterday evening provided one of those memorable moments in parenting, as I helplessly watched my twelve year old son endure a very public and painfully humiliating moment.  His little league team, which I help coach, was in the final inning of what had been a good game for them.  They’d played pretty well and had a 9-4 lead as the inning began.  All they needed to do was get three outs and the game would be over. 


This represented a big step forward from their first game, where they’d not played well and had lost by 10 runs.  After that game, we (i.e. the coaches) had chided them about not being more focused and taking things more seriously; and to their credit they seemed to respond well in this game.  At the end of the previous inning, we’d had to change pitchers, which is always a precarious endeavor with twelve year olds; and though our reliever looked a little shaky, we managed to make it out of that inning. 


Though my son Andrew (AJ) has been lobbying the head coach for a chance to pitch throughout the spring, it didn’t really look like he’d be needed for this game, and as his father, that was a relief.  Coming in late, with the game on the line is a lot of pressure for anyone; especially a kid whose never been a part of the regular pitching rotation.  AJ is a capable pitcher, but he’s an excellent shortstop, and I would have been just as happy to see him finish the game at that position. 


Unfortunately, our reliever from the previous inning continued to struggle, eventually walking in multiple runs and leaving the bases loaded, with no outs.  The head coach really had no choice but to make a change, and so AJ got the call.


AJ is a pretty confident guy, and to him this was an opportunity to be a hero.  Baseball has always come pretty naturally to him, and I’m sure that he could envision himself striking out the side and saving the game.  I tend to be more of a pessimist, so I couldn’t ignore the very real possibility of disaster, though I prayed that I would be wrong. 


His first few pitches seemed OK, but then things began to slowly unravel.  Though he was able to get the first couple of strikes on a batter, he couldn’t seem to deliver strike three.   Several times, he bore down and wound up hitting the batter with the pitch.  Every mistake cost another run and was another blow to his now crumbling psyche.  For a parent, it was like watching your child slowly boil in oil.  As coaches, we’d have loved to take him out of that situation, but we had no one else with game experience.  Since we still had an at bat, the inning had to keep going until the third out. 


Though he did manage to get a couple of outs, the last one seemed to elude him.  Even when he was able to field a ground ball, which was an easy toss to 1st base, he second guessed himself, (remembering that the bases were loaded) deciding to throw the ball to home plate instead.  The catcher, assuming that the throw was going to first, wasn’t ready, and so the misery continued. 


After hitting more batters with pitches, the head coach again had no choice but to put in someone else, as AJ tearfully returned to shortstop.  To add insult in injury, a line drive got past him there, before the inning ended; with the score now 15-9.  Though we managed a couple of hits in our last at bat, the final score was 15-10.


Much worse than the loss, was the sight of my precious son, emotionally in pieces as we left the park.  AJ is an achiever, who generally does well at anything he puts his mind to, and so he hasn’t faced many moments like this.  As a father and as a coach, it’s hard to know what to say.  It strikes me that this could be a watershed moment, both for him and for his team.  We’re only two games into the season and things aren’t looking good. 


The question is what are we going to do about it?  A lot of coaching at this level seems to be aimed at fostering a “winning attitude” in the kids, and to be sure, they need to believe that they can have success if they’re going to be successful.  But that belief by itself won’t get the job done.  AJ believed he could pitch us out of the inning and despite his best efforts, it didn’t happen.  Ironically, I’ve heard many a coach yell at a young pitcher, “Pitch Strikes!”, as if they’re not really trying; when, like AJ, the problem is that they’re trying way too hard. 


It’s not that they lack the “will to win” or a “winning attitude”, it’s that they aren’t really prepared to face the pressure of the moment.  In truth, everyone has the desire to win, it’s just that most of us aren’t willing to endure the necessary preparation that it takes to succeed when such an opportunity presents itself.  This is true in AJ’s case.  What he’s achieved on the ball field has largely been based on his natural ability.  He’s likes the idea of pitching or hitting home runs, but he rarely practices those aspects of his game.  He’s come to the place where his level of commitment and hard work is now being tested. 


One disastrous inning does not erase all that he’s achieved up to now, but how he responds to it will set the tone for what he achieves in the future.  The same is true for us as coaches; how we respond to this disappointment will undoubtedly shape the rest of our season.  If all we do is bear down on the kids, we’re likely to get similar results to AJ’s efforts to pitch strike three, and as such, risk getting someone hurt.  Our challenge is to find ways to better prepare them for the opportunities that are sure to arise throughout the rest of the year.


It seems to me that fathers and coaches often struggle in these moments.  They want so much for their kids to be successful, that they often lose perspective.  Events, such as last night’s game, will hopefully cause us to take a step back and to regain the context within which we’re working.  These are eleven and twelve year old boys; they are emotional, impulsive, easily distracted, and in desperate need of guidance.  Though we can see their amazing potential, we cannot lose sight of their very real limitations. 


Most of them won’t play this game past this level, and possibly none of them will play beyond their school years.  That means that the lessons they learn from us must transcend the game of baseball.  Every one of them are going to encounter moments in their lifetime when they are like the batter facing a full count, or the outfielder who dropped the fly ball, or the pitcher who just gave up the winning run.  Helping them to be ready for those moments is a far more worthy cause than the pursuit of a little league trophy, that is sure to gather dust before they eat their next bite of Thanksgiving turkey. 


Too often, we’re not willing to accept failure, when failure is a natural part of everyday life.  Major league players, who make millions, and who’ve been amongst the best of their peers for twenty plus years, still strikeout and make errors.  Why should we be so surprised and offended when our twelve year olds do the same? 


I believe that helping them to understand that there will be disappointments, and preparing them to deal with those setbacks, is an essential part of helping them find success.  When you consider that a batter is classified as a good hitter if his batting average is over .300, then how he handles the other .700 becomes a critical factor.  If we, as fathers and coaches, simply yell and scream when we don’t get the desired results, we’re teaching these young boys that this is how you deal with failure.  For the sake of our children, we need to do better than that.


When AJ came off the field last night in tears, I didn’t tell him not to cry.  I understood that it hurt, and that it would be unreasonable to ask him to stop.  I just hugged him and let him cry.  He’s a great kid and I’m proud of him.  I wish last night would have turned out differently, but I’ll just throw that on the pile of all the other wishes that never came true. 


I believe that AJ is a good ball player and that the sky’s the limit for him, but only if he’s willing to work hard at it.  He may not love, or be committed enough to baseball for that to happen: and if so, these will probably be the last few years he plays.  I’m OK with that too.  He has endless potential in so many other things that I don’t have much invested in his baseball career.  My job, is to help him find that potential, and to walk in it. 


Just like coaching baseball, it is a job that I don’t necessarily feel qualified for, but it’s definitely one I’m committed to.  Though everyone was kind to us as we made our way to the car last night, I couldn’t help but wish that the name on the back of my jersey would have said “AJ’s Dad” instead of just “Coach”.  I believe in him, whether he ever throws strike three or not.  I love that kid, and I pray that I can help him grow stronger from all of this.

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